I met him in October


In my part of the world October is the hottest month of the year. The gusty winds of August disappear and the cooling breezes of September fade. October is pure throbbing African heat.

BY Thembe Khumalo

It is a time of the year that is pregnant with the anticipation of many delightful things all at once — the festive season celebrations, the first rains, the end of the school year and an era.

That’s why when I met him in October of that year, there was no hint or forewarning of the unspeakable things that would follow.

And so a story begins. If my headline had been: “The importance of storytelling in business” I probably would not have held your attention this far. But stories can do the work that sterile words cannot!

Stories can evoke imagination, incite expectation and even inspire revolution. They are powerful tools for communities, companies and even countries.

They form the basis of our understanding of who we are, and draw us out of our own worlds and into other worlds, known or unknown.

When a story is told, a million possibilities come to life, and our ideas about ourselves can shift so suddenly that it seems almost mystical. Stories can help us begin to see ourselves differently.

Sometimes when I say I am a storyteller, I read on the faces of the people I am talking to, a valiant struggle to avoid rolling their eyes.

The reaction is understandable because many of us don’t recognize the significance of storytelling. What I really want to say to them is: “YOU are a storyteller. My job is to help you tell your story in the best way to achieve your goals.”

When you begin to think of processes like marketing and accounting as nothing more than storytelling, it can help to demystify them, and place you in a frame of mind where you are more ready to tackle difficult tasks.

Numbers tell the story of a business’s financial performance and position, while marketing tells consumers the story of how a product or service can solve their problems.

Religious and political movements have long used the art and power of stories, lgends and myths to persuade large numbers of people to support them and their causes in a way that business has not yet espoused. Usually the stories have an over-arching theme.

United States President Donald Trump used storytelling effectively when he ran on the “Make America great again” slogan. His story was that there is much that has gone wrong with America, that America has great potential which he is well-poised to release, reigniting the “American dream”, which is in itself a story.

One of the most effective story themes that African political leaders use to retain power is the story of the liberator. The underlying theme goes something like this: “I saved you from the oppressor who sought to destroy you.

Not only are you indebted, but you can’t trust anyone else to protect you. I saved you once, and I am going to continue to save you if you remain loyal to me.” These stories work effectively in spite of any evidence to the contrary.

The danger of stories well-told is that regardless of whether the stories are true or false, they are often believable. Think of the stories we tell our children — Father Christmas, the tooth fairy, the river god who swallows little ones that go swimming by themselves, the witch who lives next door.

The stories may be well intentioned, but they really are highly improbable; yet many of us continue to believe in them way past the age at which our logic should have kicked in.

Adult fairy tales include goblins that manufacture luck, snakes that vomit money in exchange for sex with businessmen’s wives and white hankies that mysteriously convert the ownership of assets from one person to another.

I could go on with these examples, but I am only allowed a certain number of words in which to tell my own story, and I want to bring you back to the main point of this piece, which is that stories are so effective, they are a wasted and underutilised tool in business.

The key to story telling is the same key that opens the door to brand-building — feelings! It is not reason which changes behaviour or causes us to choose one brand over another, it is the emotional connection we make with what they offer, it is how well the story they tell resonates with how we see ourselves.

When L’Oreal launched the Because I’m worth it campaign in 1973 they appealed to women’s self-esteem to the extent that an amazing 80% of women in the market segment still respond and react to the phrase today. But it’s not a phrase about the factual or technical benefits of L’Oreal’s make up — it is about how it makes women feel.

In his book, On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction, Brian Boyd’s provides a scientific breakdown of why stories are so powerful. He “assembles a mass of scientific evidence, drawing on evolutionary theory, ethology, linguistics, artificial intelligence, game theory, anthropology, economics, neurophysiology, analytic and experimental philosophy, epistemology and psychology, and shows — scientifically — why storytelling is so important.” (Forbes.com)

There is a reason why most annual reports begin with text. It is because company leaders want the opportunity to tell a story that sets the context for the stories told by the numbers. But these stories are often brief and clinical.

When leaders tell powerful compelling stories, they provide relevance and purpose and instigate action.

Next time you have to make a presentation, try changing your opening lines from the usual, “This presentation is going to cover the period…” to something more like, “I met her in October…”

Your business may never be the same again!

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